The Role of Historical Monographs

At a recent workshop in London, I had a conversation with a fellow graduate student about the relevance of history as an academic discipline. He held that the entire academic world was a farce: professors spent too little time in the classroom, producing books that nobody read, were overpaid, and basically a general waste. Beyond my initial confusion that a fellow history graduate student would have such low esteem of his profession and peers, I think its a trenchant criticism that needs to be dealt with. This echoed the recent discussion begun by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail about lazy professors, and rebutted by Clifford Orwin.

The teaching debate was played out between Wente and Orwin, and I think its an important one. But another important issue is the role of historical monographs.

The largest criticism is that many monographs are not widely read and are not accessible. This is true, in some ways. Part of the rationale of ActiveHistory.ca, for example, is to take research and analysis from these academic works and turn them into easily digestible pieces for public consumption. Print runs are short at academic presses, a few make their way to book stores, the rest to university libraries. Few make their way into the majority of Chapters/Indigos, for example, although recent works by Steve Penfold and Bryan Palmer have certainly had quite a bit of shelf space. Between the Lines Press has also been doing a spectacular job in marketing academic books to a mass market (Congrats to Ian McKay who was honoured by the Governor General a little over a week ago!).

But information is diffused into the public sphere by other means. I think the best example is the university lecture. It was really only after my comprehensive exams that I became truly aware of how much of the field list found its way into a variety of lectures, boiled down into easily digestable chunks for first-year undergraduates, or third-year Labour Studies majors, or honours students. These are formative experiences for many of these students, and they take this information into the broader world. Without this wealth of detailed, well researched materials, the teaching experiences at universities would be a far poorer one.

They also help inform popular writings. By this I don’t simply mean the popular histories that quickly come to mind, such as recent biographies of John A. MacDonald or the continual flurry of military history, but also the world of Canadian literature. What would Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion look like without Ian Radforth’s work on Finnish bushworkers, just to name one fairly famous example?

Sure, academic publishers require federal government aid to produce many monographs. Artists secure funding from various levels of government, as well, as do most cultural productions. The debate there is a much broader one about the role of the state in supporting various endeavours, and I think is a wider one than just the academic press.  I personally think the minimal subsidies from the federal government, through the Aid to Scholarly Publication program, are well warranted – just as artistic grants.

This is my brief interjection in the debate, and I’ve tried to keep it within the realm of 500 words. What do you think, readers? What’s the future of the historical monograph?

Stay tuned for my next post, where I deal with the Kindle. (Sneak preview: I had the opportunity to use one yesterday – and while it’s not there yet, this is going to shake up the publishing world! It’s amazing.)

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